Over the weekend I was on a panel for FtBCON about supporting individuals with mental illness. It was really fun to participate in, and I feel like I got some good insight from others, as well as solidified some of my own feelings about what’s helpful and what’s not, but there’s one thing that I feel is extremely important about supporting someone with mental illness that we didn’t touch on at all (it was a one hour panel, there’s only so much we can do). But I think that this topic is something that we need to talk about because it will make life easier for support people, it will reduce some of the guilt and shame for people with MI, and generally it will strengthen and solidify relationships to last beyond the end of an MI.
Support is a two way street.
Ok, obvious thing is obvious, but many people, particularly support people, forget this. Any relationship you’re in requires a give and take of support and being supported. This is true EVEN if the person you’re in a relationship with has a mental or physical illness and needs more support than the average bear. A lot of the time support people think that they can’t burden their friend/family member/lover with any more troubles, and so they keep all their own difficulties to themselves. They want to protect their loved one. They think it’s showing that they care: they will take care of you through anything, but they won’t ask anything in return.
Unfortunately this tactic will make both parties feel like shit. First and foremost, a relationship with someone with an MI is a relationship, and any time you have massive inequalities in a relationship, that relationship is likely to not work or to lead to unhappiness. In very few other circumstances would it be considered acceptable to treat one party like a child and expect to be able to have an adult relationship.
If you try to protect the other person and you don’t allow them to offer support, both people will end up hurt in some fashion. It will make the support person resentful, afraid, and give them feelings of complete responsibility for the other person. It leads to lots of burnout and means that in the long run your relationship is likely to fall apart because the only thing sustaining it is sympathy or “fixing”. And from the perspective of the person with the disease, it feels incredibly condescending, isolating, and lonely. You never really get to hear about the other person. You don’t get to feel useful. You feel like you’re less than the other person or a drain on them. You feel like you’re ruining their life, or like they don’t actually want to be around you but they feel obligated. You feel like they don’t trust you to be adult or helpful or positive. It’s horrible.
Support people: you are allowed to make requests, set boundaries, and ask for support with someone who has a mental illness. Not only are you allowed, but you should. Being a support person is HARD work and if you aren’t willing to take care of yourself and be open and communicative about how you need to take care of yourself, it will not work. If the other person repeatedly makes demands that are too much for you or that you feel are enabling them, you are allowed to say no. If you’re having a horrible day, you’re allowed to call them and ask if you can vent or hang out or go to the movies. However just like any other relationship, you need to remember that when you do these things you should be gentle and validating of the other person.
People with mental illness: your mental illness is not a get out of jail free card. I know that sometimes it feels like you can’t add any more onto your plate. That’s ok. That’s when you get to set your own boundaries. But you have to step up for your friends and family when you can and how you can. All of us have something that we can give to others. All of you have something about you that draws your loved ones to you. Remember that and remember that if you want to maintain a strong and healthy relationship with someone then you owe honesty, support, and respect to them.
One good example of this is something that is really hard for everyone: opening a dialogue and asking for more information. Support people often find themselves a little lost and confused about what’s going on in the mind of the person they love. In this case, they need something. They need more information to feel some certainty, some understanding, and to be able to help more effectively. Lots of people are afraid of doing this because they feel it might set something off. However just like the person with the MI, the support person needs to listen to their own emotion of confusion and plan out strategies for how to ask for something. In this case, they should probably alert the other person ahead of time, ask without accusation, and try to maintain a curiosity about what’s happening with the other person.
Oftentimes we forget that the person with the MI is learning a great deal through therapy or skills training or simply dealing with their day to day life. They pick up on lots of skills and coping mechanisms. These often involve ways to take care of themselves, particularly in a relationship. However these are skills that are generally good for everyone. Learning how to be kind and giving, learning how to hold to your values, learning how to request something, learning how to set a boundary: these are all things that we should be taught clearly as children but most of us aren’t. And so just like the individual with the illness has to learn new things, so do the support people so that they can be more effective both for themselves and for the person they’re in a relationship with. People with MI want to be able to support and help others. It helps us remember we’re not useless. Giving us clear ways to give back does a lot for us, and it will do a lot for you.